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Countdown To The Euro: View from France - Europe united by apathy and ignorance

THE EXCITED children aged nine and 10 were learning about the euro in the school car park. They were also trying to stand on one another's feet when Madame was not looking.

The Eurobus - touring Normandy for the past three months, spreading the gospel of the single currency - had come to town. Or in this case to the village of Cambes-en-Plaine, just north of Caen.

"What will the euro mean to you?" asked the bright, young woman wearing jeans, and astud in her nostril.

"It will mean we have less money, because everything will be divided by six," said little Philippe. "No," explained the patient woman from the Treasury. "Your pocket money will seem less but it will buy as many sweets as before."

Florian, aged nine, piped up: "The euro will mean we are stronger because we will be 11 countries working together, instead of one. It will mean that we don't have to pay to change our money when we go abroad."

The bright, young woman beamed. Florian's Papa, it turned out, is a bank manager.

Overall, faced with the historic prospect of the abolition of the franc, the class displayed remarkable knowledge - and blithe indifference. Something similar could be said of France as a whole.

Partly because the everyday consequences seem so far away, with the franc remaining in circulation for another three years, France will greet the new year launch of the single currency with a wave of apathetic enthusiasm.

According to recent polls, almost 70 per cent of French people regard the euro positively. But the government and business representatives who have manned the Eurobus through Calvados since September report a surprisingly low level of interest.

"Some of the older people are making a bit of a drama out of it. They complain that they still think in old francs (abolished in 1960)," reported Claire Godillon, director of judicial affairs for the Caen chamber of commerce.

"Otherwise, people don't seem to care much either way. There are a few who are strongly in favour, a few who are violently against. The great majority are mildly curious and accept it's going to happen, whatever they think."

Although France voted only narrowly for the Maastricht Treaty for shadowing the euro, the anti-single currency camp, on both the left and right, has failed in recent efforts to stir up indignation or concern. With interest rates and inflation at historic lows, the economy reasonably strong and the Bourse (stock market) at record highs, it's difficult to make a short- term, economic case against the euro. The political, sentimental case appears to have gone by the board, for now.

What will change from next month? Apart from the invisible but vital fact that control of France's currency will pass to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, not very much.

All restaurants and shops have been asked to display prices in both currencies. Customers can pay in euros, by cheque or banker's card, but only if the establishment isready to accept them. Employers can, if they wish, pay staff in euros from next month.

The euro is, however, trans-forming the lives of at least two people. The state Loto organised two special jackpot draws, just before and just after Christmas. In each, the first prize was seven million euros (roughly pounds 5m) so creating the first euro-millionaires.